In the UPB book and also on this message board, the idea is often expressed that valid moral rules are always enforceable. Either it is assumed to be true by definition, or it is seen as a logical conclusion. In this post, I will try to show why I think this is not a good idea.
A question of definition
In the UPB book, ethics is defined as follows:
In general, we will use the term aesthetics to refer to non-enforceable preferences – universal or personal – while ethics or morality will refer to enforceable preferences.
Similarly, "good" is defined in the UPB book as:
universally preferable and enforceable through violence, such as “don’t murder”
with evil being defined as the opposite of this.
A problem with these definitions is that they diverge from what is commonly understood to be morality and aesthetics, and this is confusing. Ethics is about what we ought to do. This is a concept separate from enforcement. Aesthetics is about subjective taste, what we consider beautiful etc. It is not morally binding at all. If "being on time" and "not lying" is classified as merely "aesthetically positive", this is a too weak expression to my taste.
Another problem is that the definition tries to categorize two behaviors at the same time: 1) the behavior itself, and 2) the reactionary rule-enforcing behavior. Generally, it is not a good idea to categorize two things at the same time. Each of these two behaviors can better be categorized separately as either good, evil, or neutral.
Another possible objection to the definition is that it is circular. Behavior is good if it is enforceable. Enforceable means that enforcing is not evil. Enforcing is not evil if a prohibition on this enforcement would be unenforceable. And so on.
Does it follow logically?
If it cannot be assumed by definition that moral rules are always enforceable, can it maybe be deduced logically?
A moral rule forbids or requires certain behavior. A negative moral rule could be: People ought not do action X. This means that it is universally preferable that people don't do action X. What else can we logically deduce from this? Not much. To help the deduction a bit, let's introduce the assumption that the reason for the moral rule is that the effects of action X are really bad. In that case, if the effects of action X are bad, then it cannot be evil to prevent these effects. But enforcement never simply prevents the effects of bad actions to occur. Enforcement always has side effects. In some cases, enforcement has the side effect of physical harm. It does not follow logically, that this would be always acceptable. This is a reason why there are pacifists. The same reasoning applies to the enforcement of positive rules. In addition to this, positive rules have a few extra characteristics that make their enforcement less likely to be allowable and preferable, compared to negative rules.
- Enforcement of a positive rule cannot make sure the required action is done (because of free will, and because physical harm will only impede performing the required action), while enforcement of a negative rule can possibly make sure a forbidden action is stopped.
- It is not possible for a person to fulfill a negative duty as a substitute for someone else, but it might be possible to perform a positive duty as a substitute for someone else, with similar positive effects. If the external positive effects of the action were the reason for the moral rule, then it makes sense to do this.
A counter-example to the idea that moral rules are always enforceable, is the requirement of proportionality. Many people believe that enforcement is only allowable if it is not disproportional. It is possible to imagine a situation where evil behavior is not preventable, except by disproportional violence, for example a thief running away with a candy bar. Such a situation could not exist, if indeed enforcement would always be allowable.
For these reasons, I would say that ethics is a matter distinct from enforceability, although it is a related concept. What would your response be to this argumentation?